Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Disney's Robin Hood

So, you know how I keep railing on the Disney princess movies and I complain a lot and everyone has this lingering question in the back of their minds about what kind of a horrifying, deprived, scary childhood I had to make me so adverse to fun? 

Maybe you're not actually asking that question. I'm gonna answer it anyways.

The truth is that I had a pretty decent childhood all around. And while we didn't actually have cable, and the only shows I saw until I was thirteen were pretty much limited to Sesame Street, Wishbone, Kratt's Creatures, Bill Nye, and The Jim Lehrer News Hour, I did see movies. A lot of movies. Because when you don't have cable and have already read literally every book in the children's section of the library that is within walking distance of your house, eventually you turn to something else. Something different. Something like, say, Disney movies.

And pretty much every other movie too. It's not that I had a deprived childhood, or that I suffered because I never got to see anything and as a result I'm hyper critical. My parents actually took time and effort to make sure that we were exposed to good culture and high art and all that jazz. It's not that I didn't get enough Disney in my childhood to get it, it's that I got so much of everything else that I developed a very discerning Disney palate at a young age.

Also, I got to see a lot of amazing old films and got a strong education in classical music via the radio and the library, and I guess that part of what I'm saying is to support your local libraries because they are freaking awesome.

But the other thing I'm saying is that it's not that I don't get Disney. It's that I've seen enough Disney to be picky about it. So when I say that Robin Hood is one of my favorite classic Disney films, I hope you understand that there is a hell of a lot of thought going into this. And also a fair amount of gut feeling, because let's be real, who doesn't love this movie?

Put out in 1973, Robin Hood is weirdly positioned in the Disney canon. It's smack in between the two great periods of Disney popularity - in between the Disney princess eras, basically. It comes after Snow WhiteCinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, and before The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. This was a hard time for Disney. They didn't quite have the formula down yet, they were reeling from the death of their founder, and honestly kind of struggling to figure out what audiences wanted to see. So, for a while, Disney picked from the legends and fairy tales genre. And from that we got, dun dun DUN, Robin Hood.

I feel like I shouldn't have to explain the plot on this one, since the plot is exactly the same as every other Robin Hood narrative, but I'll give you a brief synopsis. Robin Hood is a nobleman who has turned outlaw in order to enact justice on the wicked Prince John, who is hurting the country as he rules in his brother's (King Richard's) stead. Robin and his merry men (or in this case, pretty much just Little John) rob from the rich and give to the poor, all while they merrily escape from the Sheriff of Nottingham and the evil Prince John.

There's really very little actual plot in this movie. Which isn't exactly a bad thing, as it happens.

Oh, there's Maid Marion too, the lovely noblewoman that Robin is in love with and who loves Robin back. She's being kept hostage by Prince John, and Robin has to save her. Or maybe just give her an opportunity to escape and she'll save herself. There's an archery contest, a lot of heists and jail breaks, jokes about how terrible Prince John is, and a triumphal return of King Richard. So pretty much every Robin Hood movie ever.

What makes this one different, though, is how they do it. And I don't just mean that they do this by giving us a whole cast of talking animals and silly gags and one of the most memorable villains in the Disney canon (I'm talking about you, Hiss), but by making the story genuinely emotionally resonant. And that? That takes skill.

It's weird, because usually when we talk about movies that really get at your heart, they're ones that have a solid story arc, that go somewhere. Stories where the characters transform and you emotionally join with them on their journey. None of that really happens here, but we get the same effects. Why?

Because when you think about it, nothing really does change in Robin Hood. At the beginning of the movie, Robin is a good guy doing bad things. At the end of the movie, he's a good guy who doesn't have to do bad things anymore, but not because he changed, because the circumstances around him changed. Maid Marion is lovely and sweet and kind and later in the movie she is still lovely and sweet and kind (though, surprisingly, with a little kick). Prince John is a whiny cry-baby. Hiss is deliciously evil and the only smart one around. Clucky is my favorite character. No one changes at all.

And as far as the plot goes, there really isn't much. The people of Nottingham are being taxed unfairly. Robin steals money and gives it to them. Robin wins an archery contest and saves Maid Marion. The Prince takes it out on the people by taxing them more. They go to jail. Robin and Little John break them out of jail and steal all the money from the treasury. King Richard comes back. Robin and Maid Marion get married. The end.

No, seriously, that's a good summary of everything in this movie. And for all that it's episodic and simplistic and really more of a panto than a plot, it's not bad. It's actually really amazing. Because for all of its simplicity, this movie knows exactly where to hit you: in your empathy.

It's not that you empathize with the transformation of the characters, and it's really not that you think of yourself as Robin Hood or Maid Marion or even Little John. Pretty much everyone I know who has watched this movie empathizes most with the people of Nottingham. The random nice people getting screwed over because their king decided to fight a war and left his idiot brother in charge. The people of Nottingham are shown to be kind, good, and poor as all get out. But they're also feisty and lovable and desperate to change their lot. You feel for these people. You love these people. And you desperately want Robin to save them.

I think that's what this movie really taps into. The childlike feeling that we are in deep over our heads, that the world is about to eat us, and that we really, really need someone to swoop in and stop the evil Prince John from taking our money.

I'm just going to say that as a reasonably cash-strapped adult, this resonates with me.

But it's really a very classic story. For all that Robin is the underdog here, he's also sort of not. He's underestimated, but no one really believes that Robin can't do it. There's really never a question of whether or not Robin will be okay. Whether he'll save us. We know he'll save us because he's good, and we know he can because he's freaking Robin Hood! Of course he can!

Which is why the one moment when you think he can't, when he sacrifices his freedom to save a little baby rabbit (oh gosh, I'm getting all feelingsy just thinking about it - I need a lozenge), it's devastating. Robin is the hero. He's our hero. He has to live. He just has to.

Fortunately, he does. And Nottingham is saved, yay! But the real thing that's saved is our hope. Because Robin Hood doesn't just represent a fox in a weird green hat, he's the hero we all want to save us. And more than that, he's the hero who wants to teach us how to save ourselves.

One of my favorite parts of the movie (aside from the one where the church mice give Father Tuck their last farthing and oh crap the feelings are back) is when Robin meets with a young rabbit who is probably his biggest fan. Now this little rabbit is down on his luck. His mom is a single mother, he has like four siblings, all young, and they are dirt poor. Robin comes to them on the little rabbit's birthday, just as the Sheriff has stolen everything they have. Not only does Robin give them money to replace what they lost and then some, he also gives the little rabbit a present: he gives him a bow and arrow, and his very own hat.

It seems like a little touch, but it really isn't. The message here isn't "hey kid, to reward you for being so poor, I thought I'd give you some of my old stuff", it's "hey kid, I see that you are down on your luck - here, have something you might be able to use to protect your family." Hey kid, have some hope. Hey kid, want to learn to be strong?

Guh, this gets me every time. Because the real message of Robin Hood isn't so much that if we wait for a hero then eventually someone will come, but rather, if we work together, we can save each other. And that hits me right in the deeply seated love of community and togetherness and happiness. Dang.

I mean, there's also stuff in here about how the movie works as a stinging indictment both of over-taxation and the free market system, and how it's actually kind of communist, if you think about it (Robin takes from the rich and gives to the poor, according to their needs not their contributions), but the real thrust of the movie is in the way that Robin doesn't fight for the villagers, he fights with them. He helps them fight. He's the hero, but he's a hero who leads, not one who does it all on his own.

That is why this movie is one of the best Disney films. It's one of the rare ones with a genuine moral center that doesn't suck, and one where the villain is honestly quite realistic. Prince John loves power and money, but he doesn't know how to deal with the consequences of his actions. He's not an evil mastermind - none of them are, not even Hiss. They just have the power to be bad, so they are bad. It's really simple, and for all that simplicity, probably the truest version of the story. Plus, they're all really funny.

And just before we go, I want to give a quick shout out to Clucky, Maid Marion's friend. Clucky is possibly my favorite character in the movie precisely because she's the opposite of Maid Marion. She's bawdy, violent, snarky, and vehemently political, and not only are she and Maid Marion friends (which is awesome in and of itself), but Clucky is shown to not just be Maid Marion's tag along, but to be a desirable woman-ish creature in her own right. 

Clucky isn't bad because she's aggressive and funny and strong, she's great. She's different from Maid Marion, but the story never says that's a bad thing. 

Just another thing to love, and just another reason why Robin Hood really is one of the best.


  1. I look back fondly on this film as well, having viewed it numerous times in my younger days. I think we actually own the 50th Anniversary Edition or something. However, I disagree with the possible interpretation that this film is an indictment of the free market system and over-taxation. Firstly, Medieval England is probably the farthest you could get from a free market system, being a feudal monarchy in which it would be extremely difficult to climb the social ladder. Secondly, if I recall the content of the film correctly, Robin Hood never steals from rich people specifically. Rather, he steals from the government, who are the ones doing all the taking. Granted, I've never seen Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robin Hood with Russell Crowe, the BBC Robin Hood series, but I have read adaptations of the original legends, and I know that this depiction of Robin Hood is very different from the typical portrayal of Robin Hood. (that is, a hotheaded adventurous troublemaker). Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as Robin Hood here is a jovial crusader for justice against a corrupt and abusive government. The point, however, is that the film cannot be against both free markets and over-taxation. If it were against free markets, then it would be for lots of taxation and government control, which are the key factors which have consistently prevented a true free market from springing up. If it were against over-taxation, and I believe that it is, it would naturally support a truly free market, which (in theory) would be all but free of taxes. I therefore conclude that Disney!Robin Hood is most likely a libertarian or something of that nature. Still, this article really got me thinking. I remember being really moved by those scenes of the Nottingham folks being marched off to jail and whatnot, so I may have to give this movie another watching. The opening credits alone are fantastic.

    1. Actually, Levi, I think the real question here is why it bothers you so much that I can read this film as being communist (communist in the anarcho-Marxist sense, of course).

      Food for thought.

    2. Firstly, ad hominem. Secondly, it doesn't really bother me a whole lot. I just wanted to point out the incongruity of certain semantics in the article.

  2. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeees. Yes and Yes and YES again. I love this movie deeply, and you have so beautifully described many of the reasons that I love it that I'm leaving a comment on a random stranger's blog to say: thank you.

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